This Week On Sunday Show:
✅ One-time screening of the documentary film into Fake News
The film traces the roots of the World War II, the war in Ukraine and MH17 through to President Donald Trump. World renowned experts explain what is fake news, how it succeeds, and how to tackle the growing program.
The film features Simon Ostrovsky, CNN journalist, best known for VICE NEWS documentary 'Selfie Soldiers', in which he re-enacted a Russian soldier's social media posts to track him to Ukraine; founder of Bellingcat Eliot Higgins, Senior Editor at The Economist Edward Lucas, researcher of Media at London School of Economics and Political Science Gregory Asmolov and Managing Editor of First Draft Alastair Reid, as well as StopFake’s co-founding Editors Olga Yurkova and Ruslan Deynuchenko.
Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder of StopFake, Director of Mohyla School of Journalism
What You Need To Know:
✅ Fake news, or disinformation, is a form of propaganda which uses social media and other media channels to proliferate fabricated news stories.
✅ Ukraine is a prominent example of how fake news has been used in recent years. According to Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism: “Ukraine was one of the places where Russia was using information warfare alongside traditional, kinetic warfare”.
✅ Organisations such as StopFake.org are trying to combat fake news by gathering together and debunking some of these fabricated stories in order to “prove that this does exist, this phenomenon is around and it’s very influential and very vast, and it’s very systematic.”
✅ The documentary 'Nothing but lies - fighting fake news' is meant to explain the Ukrainian context of fake news and why it would be important for people in other countries to look.
Over recent years, Ukraine has continuously been the subject of fake news, whether it be over Crimea, the war in Donbas or MH17. It is now a worldwide phenomenon, and the Russian model for this form of propaganda is being adapted and implemented in other countries.
Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism and co-founder of the StopFake.org fact-checking site, spoke to Hromadske about how the issue of fake news has evolved in Ukraine over the last three years, and what people can do to combat the spread of disinformation.
Fedchenko explains Russia’s ‘opportunistic’ approach to this form of information warfare: “They are really looking into the local problems of each country, they speak the local language of each country, they use the local problems of each country and just monetise on them, in terms of political capital”.
He also outlined some of the important features of Ukrainian fake news: “Three years on they still continue to ‘prove’ that Ukraine is not a real state, and they always quote either the weakness or absence of political institutions, or they quote unsuccessful economic reforms and corruption which dominates in Ukraine to prove that Ukraine has basically already collapsed”.
However, there are organisations who are not only debunking these myths and lies in the fight against fake news, but hoping to change the way people consume media. As Fedchenko stated: “You can still reach out to new audiences all the time that are still hesitating, that are still undecided on important issues, so you can provide them with alternative explanations to what they have just read or seen. That really makes them start thinking critically about the media”.
To begin with, could you please explain what is the documentary 'Nothing but lies - fighting fake news' is about?
This documentary is meant to explain the Ukrainian context of fake news; why it was important to start this conversation in Ukraine three years ago, how to translate these issues to the wider audience outside of Ukraine, why it would be important for people in other countries to look into this topic and understand the impact of fake news on the decision-making process in every media system, in every country. Between the beginning of the war in Ukraine and where we are now, we’ve had a lot of events where Russian propaganda was much more influential and influenced elections and other political events.That’s why we decided that we needed to tell the story and put it into a more universal, European and wider context.
Over the past three years you’ve talked at hundred of events and to many decision-makers, explaining the nature of fake news. Today, however, western media and experts are coming to Ukraine, and to you in particular, to learn from you. Fake news exists in other countries, and other people have created their own fact-checking departments. What do people want to know about the most, in terms of your experience and this disinformation/information war?
Ukraine was the first place where the disinformation model was used; when Crimea was annexed, or even before that during the last days of Euromaidan. This experience is very interesting, because Ukraine was one of the places where Russia was using information warfare alongside traditional, kinetic warfare. In other areas we could see the other example of kinetic warfare or information warfare, Ukraine was the first place where it happened at the same time, and they were complimenting each other. That’s why the lessons from Ukraine are so interesting and so important, and in what other countries can learn from the Ukrainian experience. The main question they have is whether the Russian disinformation model that is used in Ukraine could be transferred to other countries. And the answer is yes, because the toolbox used here is pretty much universal. It’s based on the Soviet system of active measures; you can improvise with them, you can compliment them with the most recent achievements in technology, such as social media, websites, bots, hacking and other things.
The basis for this is a Soviet model of active measures (a type of political warfare, used by Soviet security services, that aims to influence world events and form a ‘politically correct’ version of these events - ed.), and it can be easily moved from one country to another and used dependent on the particular problems of each country. Unlike the Soviet system, where the universal model was used from country to country, the contemporary Russian propaganda is customised from country to country. They are really looking into the local problems of each country, they speak the local language of each country, they use the local problems of each country and just monetise on them, in terms of political capital. For example, if we look at the Baltic states, they would use pretty much the same instruments as they have been using in Ukraine. If we look at France, then they would be using the same channels to spread disinformation, but it would be localised around local issues like migrants, security connected to migrants, islamists, islamist threats, and other things, but again, the instruments they would be using for disseminating this information would be pretty much the same. Another issue that people are interested to know about is how this information is connected to things on the ground, how it’s connected to policy-making and the conduct of military warfare. Again, it’s pretty much connected, and in the Ukrainian case, all this information can easily be put into thematic frames which reflect things on the ground. So disinformation was either created on the ground for military warfare, or either complementing military warfare, or explaining why it was happening.
It’s important to understand that things always change, there are alway trends in what we talk about; first it was Crimea, then it was Donbas, then MH17, then the American elections. What are the most important stories today? What are the trends in how Ukraine is portrayed? What is made-up? What is happening globally?
As I said, propaganda is very adaptive. They look for the important, contemporary issues within each society, and for Ukraine, they pick up on issues that would be either important for the Ukrainian domestic landscape, or put Ukraine in a very unfavourable position internationally, and compromise basically any Ukrainian efforts. So now the topic would be that Ukraine is a failed state. Three years on they still continue to ‘prove’ that Ukraine is not a real state, and they always quote either the weakness or absence of political institutions, or they quote unsuccessful economic reforms and corruption which dominates in Ukraine to prove that Ukraine has basically already collapsed. We are seeing a growing amount of war-related fakes again, which are always around, and also, they pick up on important cultural issues like the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. We have a growing number of fakes around this, at first sight, politically unimportant event, but for propaganda, this is really an opportunity to portray Ukraine in a really unfavourable way, to make sure that people have doubts about Ukraine’s ability to host the competition, about whether it will be safe because of the war, fascists, nationalists and other things.
There are particular things connected to foreign policy - for example, the ‘bromance’ between Putin and Trump, and the French elections. So what impact has this had? What is the message?
Of course Russian propaganda is trying to put Ukrainian stories into an international context, and now they are really trying to find grounds to compromise Ukraine as an important international power, to explain that Ukraine is not fulfilling its obligations, is not a partner to any kind of negotiations. Also, we have seen a lot of bilateral troubles created from outside, like troubles in the Ukrainian-Polish relationship for example, which is fuelled from outside very extensively, and they are really trying to find a prerequisite to make this conflict look real, and to make sure that Ukraine and Poland make their relationship very tense. Or, for example, the implementation of visa-free travel for Ukraine. They are really trying to portray it as something unimportant and unsubstantial, that Europe will not allow Ukraine in any way to move freely around because they don’t want to see Ukrainians in Europe. Again, this is putting the story into a bigger context, that Ukraine definitely should belong in the Russian sphere of influence, and if any Ukrainian attempts to move outside of this vicious circle, this is explained as something impossible and that Ukraine is actually not welcomed over there.
The stories you mentioned are really targeted towards a foreign audience, and some of them towards the Russian audience, and I think the Ukrainian audience has become more resilient, and not just the people that are living in the occupied territories. One of the most exciting headlines that your StopFake initiative has picked up on is the one about islamic battalions helping Ukraine move chemical weapons to the Middle East. This is an interesting conspiracy.
We have just talked about how the content has developed over the last three years, but has there been anything new in terms of technology and how this fake news is proliferated?
We’ve seen a lot of changes here and more sophistication on this front, because three years ago we started with photo fakes and video fakes, which were really easy to debunk. Then we moved to more substantial, textual fakes which sometimes are much more difficult to debunk because they combine truth and lies in one piece, which you really need to split into different layers to understand whether the story is true or not. There was a lot of progress in terms of using different technology. If we go back to the headline that you just quoted, we see that this is a perfect headline for hashtags, for social media, and for all those people that would never [read] the article itself, basically the audience that consumes news at headline level; very quickly, just by having a quick look at what is going. So this is what heads their impression, because we have all the important hashtags there; islamists, chemical weapons and other things combine into one. That is a really good example of how a headline can be manipulated, shared actively, actively consumed by the audience, and it sends very important signals to the international audience that Ukraine is supporting islamists in the proliferation of chemical - or sometimes they say nuclear - weapons around different regions, and this is a really important message for [portraying] Ukraine in an unfavourable light.
We’ve talked about Kremlin propaganda, but are other governments using the same techniques and learning from these techniques?
Yes, it wasn’t the Kremlin that invented propaganda, and many other governments are trying to use it, but again, as soon as Ukraine is positioned in a way that we are subjected all the time to the influence of Russian propaganda.That’s what we mostly study, but there are examples of Chinese propaganda, or North Korean propaganda, but of course, that’s not about Ukraine, and they are generally not targeting the European region, they are mostly working on the domestic audience. Russian propaganda is interesting because it is really opportunistic in terms of how it uses different emerging opportunities in different countries, and uses the political context of each country, and that’s what makes it different in terms of other propaganda I mentioned.
What about the Western propaganda? Probably a question a lot of people from the West ask.
I always ask: give me an example of Western propaganda, where a Western government is promoting their particular destructive agenda in other countries, and where everybody talks about that in the vis-à-vis path of the conversation. But they never provide any examples, and that is what makes ‘whataboutism’ very weak, because as soon as you go to examples, you can’t find anything. I always say that, when talking about Ukrainian propaganda, and why [no-one] has started StopFake in any other country. It would be very easy, just debunk it, list it, archive it and come up with the important facts. Nobody is doing that. Why?
What you’re doing is documenting, you’re not just debunking, and you’ve been doing this for more than 1000 days. It could be argued, however, that debunking fake news is just one part of the story, it doesn’t solve the issue of fake news, it just remains within the same discourse. What would you say about that? Is this just about debunking, or is it about regaining trust?
It was important to start with debunking, because you need to start with something, and with debunking and collecting all those stories in one place, he second issue with debunking is that you can still reach out to new audiences all the time that are still hesitating, that are still undecided on important issues, so you can provide them with alternative explanations to what they have just read or seen. That really makes them start thinking critically about the media. When we debunk all these things, we always provide a chance for other points of view. We are talking about internet searches. If you just leave [it to] RT and Sputnik, when people search for ‘Russia’s war against Ukraine’, or any other issues, you will definitely only get those propagandistic examples of information or disinformation. If we were debunking at a sooner or later stage, our materials, our debunking would pop up in their search engines and would provide opportunity for those people who are interested in the other way of thinking about these issues, to get our point of view. With debunking we come to a more important thing, the proliferation of the culture of media literacy. We explain that there are many problems in the media, but also many problems in the media consumption of the audiences. So when we explain what is wrong with a particular story, we ask our audience to pay attention to what was wrong with that, please do not make those mistakes next time. It sends a very strong signal to different audiences to rethink their consumption model.
Finally, after three years of work, what would your recommendations be for dealing with this?
In this documentary, you will see everything related to fake news and propaganda, and the important issue is that it’s not just about external factors. Very often domestic politics provide a lot of opportunity to spread fake news, so that’s always the process in the movement, and the evolution of those things. People should pay attention to what has already happened, but should also look to the future. That is the message for us, as journalists, where are we moving journalism [to] from the place where we are now. Yes, it is problematic, there are many problems and questions for journalists, but where are we taking journalism next?
//by Sofia Fedeczko